Italy Gives Cultural Diversity a Lukewarm Embrace

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed Jun 25 20:11:07 UTC 2008

Italy Gives Cultural Diversity a Lukewarm Embrace

June 25, 2008

ROME — An exhibition of art from India was being installed here the
other morning, at the Luigi Pigorini Museum of Prehistory and
Ethnography. Beyond the mah-jongg, Chinese music and Andean ritual
dancing displays, Putli Ganju; Juliette Fatima Imam; and Juliette's
mother, Philomina Tirkey Imam, were hanging their paintings of animals
and fish. "You're not my type," the elder Ms. Imam said. She was
explaining the meaning behind her work — simple, hieratic and airy —
of a bird turning away from a deer. Ms. Ganju's scene of jungle life,
next to it, was more elaborate, with curlicues and filigree.  "We're
from different tribes," Ms. Imam said, "and in her case everything is
mixed up, and in mine everything is separate."

Ms. Ganju, a small, silent woman wearing a colorful sari, smiled
benignly. Europe, for all its diversity, can be remarkably provincial.
The latest Italian government came to power two months ago on a
platform promising to crack down on illegal foreigners, who
immigration opponents here say are associated with crime. Last month
the Italian police arrested hundreds of migrants living in
shantytowns. Vigilantes attacked Gypsy encampments near Naples in May
after reports of a 16-year-old Gypsy girl's trying to steal a baby.

All across Europe attitudes are stiffening toward immigration, nowhere
more so than here. About eight million illegal immigrants are
estimated to live in the European Union. This past week the union's
parliament passed tough rules for expelling and detaining them. And
here, the far right wing of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's new
government has just proposed one of the strictest anti-immigration
laws on the Continent, provoking heated opposition from human-rights
organizations, the Vatican, the United Nations and also Italian
prosecutors fearing courts swamped by criminal cases.

But with plummeting birth rates and an aging populace, Italy can
hardly survive now without foreign laborers. Albanians and Romanians
care for the elderly. Indians working in Emilia-Romagna tend the cows
producing the milk for Parmesan cheese.

The problem is that fears about crime by immigrants, inflamed by the
news media and populist politicians, have combined with one of the
largest waves of foreigners in Europe. The Northern League, a
political party that once advocated the secession of Italy's north,
joined Mr. Berlusconi's ruling coalition this spring after
distributing posters around cities like Siena showing an American
Indian next to a warning that Italians will end up, as the Indians
did, penned into reservations if they don't stop immigrants from
taking over the country.

Here in Rome the first conservative mayor in years, Gianni Alemanno,
won on a similar platform that advocated being tough on crime and
illegal immigration. He has said almost nothing about culture and the
arts, except that he would be cutting funds to the city's summer
festival. Nobody can remember the last time an incoming mayor of Rome
had entered office without some big, unaffordable cultural scheme.

Rome, an ancient magnet for foreigners, is naturally more integrated
than most Italian cities and, unlike most of the country, it has taken
at least a few steps in recent years to come to terms with its
multicultural reality, among them instituting a public library program
to reach immigrants and provide Romans with books and lectures about
foreign cultures. The question now is whether such efforts will

"We always thought of ourselves as a monoculture, but immigration is
our present and future," said Franco Pittau, an official of Caritas, a
Roman Catholic social service and development association that, among
other things, monitors immigration here.

Franca Eckert Coen echoed that remark. An Italian Jew in an
overwhelmingly Roman Catholic city who lives in an apartment filled
with Jewish art, she was in charge of multicultural policy under the
former mayor of Rome, Walter Veltroni. Ms. Coen recalled a year when
Chinese celebrated their New Year with dragons around the Day of

"The newspapers said the Chinese were against Christianity," she said.
"So we held a public event on the Campidoglio about Chinese culture
and the New Year celebration, and now we have a Chinese parade each

"It was the same with the Sikhs," she added. "We had a public event
after 2001. We also organized tours of the Capitoline Museums for
immigrants. Then we asked them to do something. The Poles, for
example, had someone play Polish music at the museum."

"Little things," she called them. "They can overcome big fears. I saw
all these immigrants become a little bit Italian citizens. Culture is
crucial to give people here a chance to see that to be foreign is to
bring a different ethnic life to the city, that diversity is a

Italian culture certainly isn't diverse now. It subsists on an
all-white, all-native, monoethnic diet of Italian game shows, Italian
television mini-series, Italian advertisements on cable stations for
improbable vibrating contraptions that promise to jiggle fat away, and
Italian pop music. Even Roman schoolchildren no longer stray far from
a spaghetti-with-ragú diet now that an intercultural city program to
serve one international-themed lunch a month has been abandoned by the
new center-right government, heeding some Italian mothers, who doubted
the nutritional value of falafel and curry.

People here remember the last time the Italian government promised to
deal with illegal foreigners, in 2002. Expulsions, 45,000 that year,
dropped to 23,000 by 2006, while 640,000 new immigrants were legalized
as part of the largest one-time legalization in the history of Europe.
You could say that Italy, in its paradox, is going through the sort of
culture shock the United States experienced a century ago, when
millions of Italians, among others, immigrated to America. Romanians
now make up the fastest-growing immigrant population here. There were
75,000 at the end of 2001. Since then, hundreds of thousands have

Romanians also account for 5.7 percent of the prison population. More
than a third of all prisoners in Italy are foreigners. Foreigners are
charged with 68 percent of rapes, 32 percent of thefts.

Politicians and the news media have latched onto this connection,
trumpeting calamities like the murder last fall of a 47-year-old
Italian woman, Giovanna Reggiani, near a Gypsy shantytown, leading to
a spate of anti-Gypsy racism. But, in fact, crime overall has not
risen since 1991. Thefts have gone up, but murders are down, to 620
last year, from 1,695 in 1990.

Gabriella Sanna directs a multicultural library program here, which
was started on a shoestring budget of about $120,000 in 1997. Today it
survives on less, she said. It began by collecting Italian
translations of world fiction and other foreign books and organizing
school visits by first- and second-generation immigrants to teach
Italian children about different cultures.

Then, as the immigrant population boomed, it started buying books in
Romanian, Polish, Arabic, French, English, Spanish, Chinese.
Foreign-language sections opened in nearly a dozen libraries where
immigrants lived. Some 8 percent of foreigners, Ms. Sanna estimated,
now use the public libraries in Rome.

She was diplomatic when the conversation turned to the recent election
and whether her program would survive. "This is a new experience for
us because we've always worked in a favorable climate," Ms. Sanna
said. Her dour expression suggested she wasn't optimistic.

Across town, at the Indian art show, where the three artists discussed
their work, the museum was empty. It occupies a sunny Modernist marvel
from the late Fascist days on the outskirts of the city center. The
place, devoted to foreign cultures, is splendid but underfinanced and
underappreciated. Roman schoolchildren are dragged there on class
trips, then fail ever to go back. Their parents, if asked about the
last time they visited, look like guilty relatives reminded of a
kindly aunt they haven't checked on in years.

Ms. Imam's daughter, in her 20s, the most Westernized of the three
Indian women, hearing her two elder colleagues describe their
pictures, piped in. "I learned from my mother and from Putli," she
said. More complicated than the others, her painting suggested a
melting pot. It was full of shapes and figures. At the center were two
birds, entwined.

She gazed at them, letting the message sink in.

"Two birds," she said. "In India, we say if you see two birds
together, it is good luck."
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